The Rifleman – The Next Generation Pt 23 (by BluewindFarm)

Synopsis:  An AU story surrounding the McCains and their friends after the end of the series’ five-year run.  A continuing saga of an idea begun in my story, Timing.

Category:  The Rifleman
Genre:  Western
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  20,580


 

The Next Generation… Chapter 104 – This House Rebuilt

Mark ran upstairs to their hotel room, “Hope!”

“Mark, what’s wrong?” Hope replied as she turned from changing Faith.

“They left!” Mark breathed.

“Who left?”

“Pa, Ma, they left on the evening train.”

“What do you mean they left?” Hope asked as she set Faith to the floor.

“I was so stupid,” Mark commented as he sat down on the bed and Hope read the note he handed her.

“Mark, what happened? I thought you and Pa talked…”

“We did, and like always, I managed to say the wrong things. Hope I love the life we have, I just believed my eyes and not my heart,” Mark whispered as he lowered his head to his hands, his elbows resting on his knees.

“Papa?” Josh called.

Hope stood, picked up Faith, and motioned for all the children to follow. They walked two doors down the hallway where Hope knocked on the door to the room occupied by Johnny and Colleen.

“Hope?” Colleen asked upon opening the door.

“Please, can you watch the children?”

“Sure, but what about Lucas and Milly?”

“They left on the train. I need time with Mark to figure out what happened… Please?”

Colleen stepped back and let the older children enter the room and took Faith from Hope.

*****

Returning to their hotel room, Hope saw Mark even more despondent than just a few minutes before.

“Mark, please… Tell me what happened,” asked Hope.

“I asked all the wrong questions and accused Pa… I should have remembered Marnie’s warning… I’ve been living a clouded truth ever since we arrived; I forgot to listen to my heart.” Tears readily fell down Mark cheeks. “He wanted me to join him for the ride back to town, and I didn’t. I was still feeling bitter from being taken from what my life could have been.”

“Could have been? What… if you’d stayed here?” asked Hope.

“Yeah, if we’d stayed. But Aunt Laura overheard it all, only she waited until Pa had left before she came to talk to me. She explained everything so much better. There’s so much of Pa’s past that I didn’t know, and he’d probably be ashamed if he knew I knew. I’m twenty-six and I behaved as if I was still six years old. Being angry at him for taking me away…”

“I’m listening…” stated Hope.

“I found out more behind why Pa left Enid after Ma died. It wasn’t just because of her memory… When Aunt Laura and Uncle Matthew were purchasing the ranch, they found old paperwork that Pa lost the ranch… He fell behind on payments because Ma wasn’t healthy and another doctor was charging him more for his services and the medication Ma needed. He lost his herd because of hoof and mouth… And then the epidemic hit… So Pa was right, there was nothing keeping him, or us, here anymore.”

“Mark…” Hope was at a loss for words.

”I should have remembered Marnie’s warning…”

*****

The train rumbled across the land, and Milly watched Lucas intently. She saw the grief in her husband’s face from losing another member of his family, yet, she also saw the anxiousness of his wanting to get home, get back to the life he knew and lived.

Over the course of the two-day train ride, Milly constantly had to remind Myra, Little Ted, and Levi not to mention Mark or his family, lest they upset their father.

*****

Seth and Lilah were stepping from the restaurant when they saw Lucas and Milly making their way to the livery, “Welcome home!” Seth called out.

“Hello Seth, Lilah,” Lucas and Milly greeted.

“When are Mark and Hope due home?” Lilah asked.

“Not sure, they wanted to stay a while and continue to catch up with the family,” answered Milly. She saw the consternation in Lucas’ face at the question and her answer. “Listen, it’s been a tiring trip and we need to get the children home. Why don’t you come out to the ranch tomorrow and we can talk.”

*****

Lucas halted the team in front of their barn and was oblivious of his children jumping down from the back of the buckboard; his thoughts were focused on his loss…the other house sitting dark and empty. He startled when Milly placed her hand upon his shoulder.

“Lucas, they’ll be back…” spoke Milly.

“Will they?”

“You know they will.”

“I’m not so sure. You didn’t see the look in his eyes or hear the accusation in his voice…” Lucas’ voice trailed off.

“Lucas, give him some time, I’m sure they’ll be home.”

Lucas shook his head.

“I’ll get supper ready, why don’t you unhitch the team.”

Milly didn’t wait for Lucas to help her down. She called for their children and headed into their home.

*****

When Lucas returned to the home, Milly never recalled seeing him so defeated. In all his trials, her husband had stood firm in his faith, he quavered a little now and then, but ultimately, his faith in God saw him through. She watched as he sat heavily in his chair and looked forlornly out the front window.

“Mama,” Myra whispered.

“Yes, sweetie,” Milly replied.

“Can I go sit in Papa’s lap to help him feel better?”

“I think that would be a lovely idea.”

Milly watched as her daughter walked across the floor, picked up her father’s bible, and climbed into his lap. Lucas took his bible from his daughter’s hands, wrapped his other arm around Myra, opened the bible, and began to read.

*****

Late Tuesday afternoon, Mark rode into the yard in front of his parents’ home. He saw Milly look out the front window, but she knew his conversation wasn’t with her; it needed to be with his Pa. Stepping from Rainmaker, he walked to the side of the home where he had grown up. Removing his hat, he touched the plaque they had carved from wood. Though the years had weathered the words, one could still read what had been mounted on the wall, so long ago. “This home rebuilt by Lucas McCain and his son Mark — Aug. 1881 ― God bless our home.” Toying with his hat, Mark looked at the words one more time, “Home…”

Mark led Rainmaker over to his father’s barn and ground tied him. He entered the barn, hat in hand, and watched as his Pa pitched dirty bedding from one of the horse stalls. “Hello… Pa.”

“Mark,” Lucas acknowledged.

“Can we talk?” Mark asked.

“Mark, I think we said everything that we needed to, back in Enid.”

“No sir, we didn’t.”

“Didn’t what?” asked Lucas, his back still to Mark.

“We didn’t say everything, least I didn’t. Pa, please… I…” Mark’s words faltered as he tried to talk to his Pa.

Hearing something different in his son’s voice, Lucas set aside the pitchfork, turned and looked to Mark.

“I enjoyed meeting our family, but…” Looking to his Pa, Mark continued, “Pa, I only…”

“Only what?” Lucas asked as he walked to Mark.

“I thought if I could go back… back to Enid that somehow… I just wanted to touch something from Ma to help remember that she was real. Now please… don’t go getting upset with me, I know she was real, but I hoped going back would start healing me. Maybe I could find myself, but instead, I hurt you.” Mark worked to keep the tears from falling from his eyes as he finished talking.

“Find yourself? Why Mark, why?” Lucas asked.

Mark hung his head. “Pa, I didn’t know what else to do, though I have a better understanding now…” Mark allowed his shame to show.

“A better understanding?” asked Lucas.

“My hurting over Ma’s death, I remember I refused to accept it in the beginning; and I never really said goodbye. Then we left. We were traveling…I blamed you for taking me from those who loved me, away from Ma. Ultimately, we settled here and created a life, and I tried forget Enid, because you told me I had to. But, back in February, I… we were so close to Enid. And then we came back from Cambridge and we had that layover in Oklahoma City… I kept remembering that I never said ‘goodbye,’ not really. We were so close…”

Lucas stood there and looked at his son, not sure exactly what to say.

“Pa, I know spoken hurt can’t be pulled back, but I want you to know, I am sorry for putting you through this hurt. I just wanted to feel something other than the hurt in here…” Mark’s right hand was balled into a loose fist and he brought it up and thumped his chest as tears flowed down his cheeks. “I remembered the way I acted after Ma’s death… It didn’t speak well for her memory…”

“I guess I should have been more understanding…” Trying to prevent his own tears from falling, “What made you change your mind and return to North Fork?”

“I always planned to come home.” Mark emphasized the word home. “Aunt Laura helped me to finally understand everything. Pa, I realized that I forgot who I was. I remember now, took you leaving to remind me. I hope you can accept me back.”

“Accept you back?” Lucas asked.

“I can see it in your eyes, not everything is right between us, yet. I’m ready to work hard to be your partner again, if you’ll have me.”

“Mark, you were never, not my partner. I didn’t hear your family outside,” Lucas stated as he looked out the barn door, anticipating his grandsons running up to greet him, using his statement as a diversion to getting his own emotions under control.

“I left Hope and the children at Seth and Lilah’s. I wanted to talk with you, son to father.”

“Then there’s more you’ve not told me, I can hear it in your voice. I’m listening… this time.”

“Pa, when Turpin had you… I met a woman who gave me a warning… She told me you wouldn’t be the only one I would end up seeking, that I would seek someone dearer to my heart. She also warned me of the spider’s web. Well… The way Mable… you know… her being a widow and then that dress she wore that last night, I kind of compared her to a black widow spider…”

“She was at that… But, how does Mable figure into this?” Lucas asked, the mere mention of the woman’s name upset him.

“Not Mable, Marnie. She was right in warning me about Mable, but I took her other warning the wrong way. I figured when she warned me about seeking the one dearer to my heart she meant that I really wanted to get home, but it wasn’t Hope she was talking about — it was Ma. Marnie knew that my traveling to find you would start me thinking on Ma again. Pa, Marnie warned me that my eyes would see a clouded image, and boy did they. But, Marnie also told me, if I trusted my heart, it would see the truth. I didn’t remember Marnie’s warning… I thought nothing more about it until I sat down next to Hope, after you and Ma left.”

Lucas listened as Mark tried to explain his feelings.

“Pa, I needed to return to Enid. Twice in six months, I had been so close… and it got me to thinking… I tried to remember us as a family, but I couldn’t feel Ma. I used to… The first day I was there, I told Uncle Abraham about not remembering the feel of Ma’s arms around me or remembering her voice as she sang while working around the house. Uncle Abe told me it was normal, that I’d remember those things until it was my time to pass those same memories to my children…” Lucas listened to the hurt in his son’s voice, but let him continue, uninterrupted. “I remembered she sang, but I couldn’t hear her voice anymore. Once I arrived, my eyes saw a life that could have been so different for us, all my aunts and uncles and cousins… When I was in Aunt Laura’s home, I saw all the pictures on wall, recent pictures of the others… yet… our picture was still the one taken before the last Christmas. I allowed myself to be pulled into a web of regret. Marnie was right, it’s difficult to get out of the web if you let yourself be drawn into it. Before you left… Pa, I was still so confused… Aunt Laura came along and explained a lot to me after you rode away.”

“What did she tell you?” asked Lucas.

“She explained more about Ma’s health, and how you sold off some of your herd to pay for the doctor and the medicines. Told me of how hoof and mouth struck and you were forced to kill the rest of your herd, and then the small pox epidemic struck.”

“And…”

“She got me to listen to my heart. I truly know, ‘here’ is where I belong. This is my home, but more importantly… Pa, this is my family. You’re my family. I remembered who I am, I’m your son. If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have the life I have and love…a beautiful wife, sons, daughters, a Ma, brothers, and a sister. Oh sure, you might have remarried, but it wouldn’t have been to Milly and if you’d had other children, they wouldn’t be Gabby, Little Ted, or Levi. And I know I would never have met Hope… Pa, home is where the heart is and my heart is here. I’m just so sorry that I forgot. I want to rebuild our partnership, just like we rebuilt our house.”

Lucas walked to the main door of the barn, cupping his hand around the doorframe, and looked to his home, “This house rebuilt by Lucas McCain and his son, Mark…” Lucas recited.

“I hope we can be partners again,” Mark replied, still knowing it was going to take time to put things right between them.

“No, I can’t welcome you back as my partner,” quietly Lucas stated. He turned and closed the distance between the two of them and pulled Mark into a hug. “I’m welcoming my son home.”

*****

Milly had made her way to just outside the barn door, listened, and heard nothing. She peeked around the doorframe and smiled when she saw the two most important men in her life, reconciling.

“Stop peeking and come inside, Milly,” Lucas stated as he realized his wife was just outside the door.

“Welcome home, Mark. Did Hope and the children come, too? What of Johnny and Colleen’s return?” Milly asked.

“I left the family in town. I didn’t know how long our talk would take. Johnny and Colleen said they planned to return home by Friday.”

“Well, get to town and get your family, unless you’re willing to let them visit with Seth and Lilah while you help your father by holding up your end of the partnership,” Milly stated with a smile.

“It’s not a partnership, Milly,” Lucas stated.

“We’re family,” Mark finished. “Let me go get changed. I’ll be right back.” With a lighter step, Mark ran from the barn as he had so many times as a little boy.

Looking to his wife, “I know… I should have listened before.”

“I won’t say I told you so…” Milly paused, “but it’s good to know he’s home.”

“A home rebuilt…” Lucas mused.

“Are you going to tell him the whole story?” asked Milly.

“Maybe I should. Maybe if I had told him the whole story the night when I told him why I wouldn’t sell the ranch to make way for the railroad; I told him of the land and what was missing, but I never told him how I lost our ranch in Enid. Maybe tonight…after his family returns.”

*****

The children were in bed when Milly and Lucas walked over to join Hope and Mark on their front porch. As they approached, they heard Mark quietly singing as he strummed his guitar.

“Mighty fine country, Pa,” Mark whispered as Lucas sat down on the other side of the porch step from him.

Mark set his guitar aside to allow Hope to sit on the step in front of him. Milly sat on the step in front of Lucas, both wives leaned back to their husbands’ support.

“Mark, there’s more to our leaving Enid that I think you need to know,” Lucas stated as he looked out towards the horizon.

Mark squeezed Hope’s shoulder when he sensed she was going to say something. Hope slowly let out her breath and listened as Lucas spoke. Lucas told Mark the whole story behind their leaving Enid

The Next Generation… Chapter 105 – Rough and Ready

Lucas and Mark didn’t stray far from their homestead, giving themselves time to heal from the hurts each had caused the other over their return to Enid; side by side father and son worked the ranch and continued to talk. Most folks who knew the McCains thought their bond couldn’t be any stronger, but they would have been wrong, over the course of the week, Lucas and Mark came to understand and respect the other more; laughter and ease returned to their homes.

When they finally decided to head into town with their families, Lucas was disappointed to find out that Lariat Jones had left while they were gone.

“Now Lucas, you know how he was one with the wind,” Micah teased as he leaned against the wheel of the buckboard, watching Lucas load the supplies. “However, I feel this time it didn’t have so much to do with the wind, but had more to do with Ruth Jackford.”

“What happened to Ruth?” asked Milly as she came from the General Store carrying packages.

“Nothing, except her having her sights set on visiting San Francisco. She was originally heading there when she stopped in North Fork earlier this year, and you know Oat, he tried real hard to keep her at the ranch, hoping she’d settle down. Lariat promised Oat he’d keep a watchful eye over his sister.”

“I’m gonna miss seeing him around town,” commented Lucas as he looked towards Sweeney’, hoping that Micah was jesting and he’d see Lariat stroll out the doors.

“He said he’d send a wire when they settled,” answered Micah. “Them two are two kindred spirits, I don’t think either will settle down.”

*****

North Fork had survived their Independence Day celebration the day before. Monday dawned to a rider coming into town, excitedly racing his horse up and down the main street, declaring, several times, “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders from the World are Coming!” as he fired his pistol. Johnny Drako ran from the Marshal’s Office in an attempt to restore order to his town.

“Easy there!” Johnny declared has he stopped in the middle of the road, his arms held out to the side.

“Marshal, the rough riders are coming!” the rider yelled in pure excitement, ignoring the fact that his horse was lathered in sweat and blowing from the effort of running, his flanks heaving heavily.

“So you said. Right now you’ll holster your gun and stop racing your horse up and down our main street, endangering people’s lives,” ordered Johnny. “Besides, if you don’t’ stop, your horse might just collapse out from underneath you.”

The rider started to argue with Drako, but chose to bite his tongue as he witnessed the citizens standing along the boardwalk, clutching to their children. “Guess I shouldn’t have been quite so excited, but it’s my job! My apologies,” he called to Drako, but then yelled, “My apologies to all I alarmed. I shall make my announcement in a more civilized manner.” The rider stood up on the haunches of his horse and called out, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls, I’m here to tell you that none other than Buffalo Bill Cody is bringing the wild west to your fair town! Start saving up your money so you’ll be able to purchase a ticket!” As he finished his announcement, the rider slid down from his horse and landed on both feet giving a large flourish as he bowed to everyone who was still staring at him.

“Better,” Drako commented as he pushed his hat back on his head, allowing the sun to strike at his steely, cold eyes.

“I have some posters that need to be hung,” the rider stated, his demeanor changed to one who understood he had been wrong and needed to walk as if on thin ice.

“Oh no ye don’t!” Lou declared as she stormed from the front of the hotel. “Ye’ll not be robbing my hotel safe nor any other safe for that matter. Johnny, run him out of town this instant!”

“Hold on there, Lou,” Johnny dared answer his wife.

“Ma’am, I mean no disrespect and have no intensions of robbing anybody. I earn good wages from Mr. Cody himself.”

“So said the last drummer who came through here, declaring the circus was coming to town!” retorted Lou.

“Ma’am, I’m not working for any circus. Our Wild West is more than any circus!” boasted the young man, taking a deep breath and pushing his chest forward. “Why Annie Oakley and Frank Butler are a part of our show, no circus can boast of them. And Geronimo, Chief Joseph, and Sitting Bull have all graced us with their presence at one time or another.”

“I don’t care who ye say, I don’t trust ye!”

“Lou, he’s just a drummer, let him do his job.”

“Then ye do yours; Marshal. Warn all the merchants of North Fork to keep a close eye on their safes.” Lou humf’d as she folded her arms and dared her husband to say otherwise.

“Johnny,” Micah called as he came from the leather shop, “Lou’s right about the past. The last time a drummer came through here, Lucas ended up shooting him when he tried to rob Lou’s safe. It put Lucas and Mark at odds with each other when the drummer said that he saw someone else run from the lobby. Lucas knew the drummer to be a thief and Mark believed him to be honest.”

“What you’re both talking about is in the past and has nothing to do with the young man who’s standing in front of us. We have people, strangers, coming through here day after day and we don’t issue any warnings about them, so why should I issue a warning today?” Johnny cocked an eyebrow as he looked directly at his wife.

“Well?!” Lou turned to walk away, her Irish temper flared. Her body posture indicating she was not yet through with this discussion, but the conclusion would wait until they were in private.

“Marshal, I’ll be staying here for a while. Mr. Cody told me when I got to North Fork to wait for the show.”

“You have a name, son?” Johnny Drako asked.

“Sure, Pony Rawleston, my friends call me Pony,” stated the rider as he held his hand out to Johnny.

“Pleased to meet you. I’m Marshal Johnny Drako and welcome to North Fork.”

“You’re really him?” asked Pony, eyes wide in astonishment.

“Him?”

“The gunfighter… Johnny Drako?”

“Son, it’s been too many years since I was considered a gunfighter.”

“But you are Johnny Drako, right?”

Johnny nodded.

“Then you have to be one of the reasons why Mr. Cody is coming here, he said something about some others that he’d heard about in this territory. You’re famous!”

“Oh no…” cringed Micah.

“Marshal, if you don’t mind, I’ll take care of my horse and put him up over at the livery and I really need to get these posters up. Mr. Cody will have my hide when he arrives and I’ve not done my job.”

“When does he expect to get here?” Drako asked.

“By Friday, he’s made all the arrangements to move his show from the train into wagons. The train itself will be on sidetracks about ten miles east of town; we’ll probably establish our settlement a couple miles outside of town. Some towns take exception when we’re too close, but I’m sure Mr. Cody will be in to see you prior to unpacking the first crate.”

“Do you job, but check in with me when you’re done,” Drako suggested as he tipped his hat.

“Yes, sir. Thank you sir. Guess I should ask the livery owner if he minds my sleeping with my horse seeing as how I don’t think that gal who owns the hotel will let me stay there.”

“You leave the hotel owner to me, you’ll get a room, meals, and a hot shower,” Johnny replied as he pulled his hat lower over his eyes.

“Smell that bad, do I? Maybe I should visit the barber shop, get a shave and a bath before I start walking around your town.”

“Maybe a bath and then a shave,” Johnny smiled and shook his head as he returned to the Marshal’s Office.

Pony ran his left hand across his smooth face, “Yes sir.”

*****

Micah and Johnny sat outside the office, talking more about the last drummer who came to North Fork.

“So how was it that Mark came to stand up for this drummer against Lucas?” Drako asked.

“Mark was always eager to get his first rifle, and that was the day Lucas agreed to buy him his twenty-two. That drummer, I think his name was… Marty, anyway, you know how our young Mark trusted everyone at face value; Marty took to teaching Mark how to shoot his rifle and I knew that didn’t settle well with Lucas.”

“No, I can’t imagine it would have. But how did they get at odds?”

“Lucas spent the evening with Lou, and when he dropped her off at the hotel, Lou thought she had a prowler in the lobby and yelled for Lucas, he came running into the lobby and barely missed being struck by a bullet, he returned fire, striking the lad through the doorway. Marty told them he’d seen someone else running from the lobby, heard the shots fired, and was struck. Anyway, you know Lucas, he’s like a she bear with cubs when it comes to Mark, unfortunately neither could get the other to understand, or accept, why they felt the way they did. Ultimately, Lucas came up with a plan to prove which one of them was right, I was to wire to the circus inquiring if Marty was really in their employ.”

“And, what happened when you received the return wire?”

“We didn’t, Mark was to let Marty know that I was sending the wire, if nothing happened, we’d know he was telling the truth. Turns out, he tried sneaking out of town in the middle of the night right after Mark told him what we were doing. Lucas and Mark were waiting in the barn, each hoping the other was wrong, but dreading the fact they might be right. Marty entered the livery to get his horse and took a pot shot at Lucas, that’s all there was too it.”

“Bet Mark didn’t like being proven wrong by Lucas,” commented Johnny.

“No… The way I remember it, Mark was more hurt by Marty breaking the trust he had placed in him. Mark looked up to Marty because he wasn’t that much older than Mark, and he was able to come and go as he pleased; I’m sure the fact that he was skilled with a gun also had something to do with it. No, Mark didn’t mind Lucas proving him was wrong, he stood up like a man and apologized to Lucas for thinking opposite of him.”

“Well, we always knew Mark was something special.” Johnny narrowed his eyes as he saw Lou peeking out the front window of the hotel, still brooding. “Guess I better go un-rile my wife.”

“Have fun!” Micah called as Johnny walked away.

*****

Johnny Drako, Seth Lane, and Micah Torrance sat outside the Marshal’s Office allowing the evening breeze to cool them from the heat of the afternoon. They stopped talking as two men stopped their horses in front of the hitching rails.

“Evening Gentlemen!” called the one wearing a fringed buckskin jacket over military pants, blue with a yellow stripe down the seam. “Allow me to introduce myself…”

“You don’t need to introduce yourself Mr. Cody, your boy, Pony already did that,” Micah answered as the three stood and waited for the two men to step from their horses.

“Well, you have me at a distinct disadvantage, but allow me to introduce my show manager Johnny Baker.”

“Mr. Cody, you’re here!” Pony yelled as he ran from the livery.

“Of course I’m here. Told you we wouldn’t be here any later than tomorrow. I decided to come into town and find out where we should set up.”

“Mr. Cody, this here is Marshal Johnny Drako, Deputy Seth Lane, and Deputy Micah Torrance,” Pony introduced.

After exchanging handshakes, Drako stated, “Pony said you usually set up a mile or so out of town. There’s a gentle valley, east of town, with plenty of grassland for grazing your stock and a creek that runs through it and has a large pond area before continuing on.”

“Glad to see we think alike, Johnny and I saw that valley when we were riding in,” Cody answered. “We hope to have everything set up so our first performance will be Saturday afternoon.”

“That quickly?” Micah asked.

“You’re questioning a former cavalry scout, Micah,” Seth offered as an explanation.

“We’ve enough roustabouts, that we’ll have most everything set up by late afternoon tomorrow. Our outfit is extremely self sufficient.”

“That and you’ve done this quite a few times,” Drako offered. “Just remind your ‘roustabouts’ that this here is a quiet town. They’re welcome as long as they mind themselves.”

“Thank you. Baker, you’ll pass the word along?”

“Yes, sir, Mr. Cody.”

*****

Mark and his family sat mesmerized through the first performance of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders from the World; upon hearing the news that the show would be on the outskirts of North Fork, Mark organized a family outing to celebrate the twins sixth birthday, yet left their daughters with Seth and Lilah. The boys were thrilled to see all the riders, U.S. Cavalry and scouts, Cossacks, Turks, Gauchos, Arabs, Mongols, and Georgians and their horses, not to mention riders of the Pony Express and Native Indians; cowboys and Texas Longhorns, each group dressed in traditional attire. Mark answered his young sons’ questions, as best his could over the noise of the crowd and the action happening in the arena. Towards the end of the performance, Buffalo Bill Cody rode into the middle of the arena sitting upon a large, pure white horse with a long flowing mane and even longer tail.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls, I present to you fierce warriors who once were our foe, but, I am now proud to call my friend. Watch and be amazed at their prowess in riding their trusted ponies! Be amazed with the accuracy of their arrows and knives, the knives of an enemy that took many scalps and not just those of white men! See the vibrant colors of their clothes, and allow yourselves to be drawn into their world. Watch the intricacies of the dance as they pray to their Gods. Ladies and Gentlemen! I present to you, Lakota!! Pawnee!! Sioux!! And Kiowa!! Indians of the Nations!!”

Only a few minutes into the performance, from the corner of his eye Mark saw Hope stand and plead, “Excuse me” as she tried to pass the other spectators who were sitting in the same row. Knowing he couldn’t leave his sons alone, Mark could only sit and wait, and wonder.

*****

Still hearing the sounds from the arena, Hope ran while trying to avoid the multitude of performers and support personnel making their way to and from the show grounds. Leaning against a traveling wagon, Hope could no longer stop the tears from falling from her eyes; her emotions wrought with hatred, embarrassment, and humiliation.

*****

“Ma’am, are you okay?” Hope heard; she tried to compose herself as she opened her eyes.

“No!” Hope yelled and tried to run away, but the Indian brave who had asked put out a restraining hand, “I mean you no harm. Our tribe is friends with the white man.”

“How could you!” Hope dared yell as she stomped her foot and clinched her hands.

“How could I? Your question is strange,” answered the brave.

“You make a mockery of… of…”

“Moc-ker-y, this word is not known to me.”

“Participating in that show!” Hope yelled as she pointed back to the arena. “You are proud and noble and now… what the audience saw was staged and so unreal!”

“What would a white woman know of our way of life, other than what she has read in books?” the brave asked.

“I lived your life! I lived among you! Grey Heart, you and Iron Heart and the others…”

“You know my name?” Grey Heart curiously asked.

“And why should I not!” a defiant Hope demanded.

“Ma’am?” Confusion painted the brave’s face.

“I am not a ma’am, I am Dawn Fire!” Hope’s eyes daring Grey Heart to take up her challenge as she re-clinched her fists.

“Dawn Fire…” With a softening of his expression, Grey Heart asked, “Can it really be you?”

“I am Dawn Fire! And what I saw out there was not the tribe that raised me!” Again Hope pointed towards the arena.

“No, what you saw was a show for those who come to see. Nothing more, nothing less.”

“Grey Heart, you need to get ready for the finale,” said a woman dressed in traditional Indian attire, who came to stand next to Grey Heart.

Hope looked at the woman and saw the age in her face and the streaks of grey in her hair.

“Silver Moon, I will go, but please, keep my sister safe.”

Grey Heart turned to leave and jogged to where another brave held his horse. He grabbed the mane of his horse and swung up upon the animal’s back, grabbed his lance, raised it over his head and cried out. As one, every rider followed Grey Heart’s lead into the arena.

“Dawn Fire?” inquired Silver Moon.

“Yes, it is I,” answered Hope as she lowered her eyes, unable to look at the woman who stood before her, the woman who had offered her comfort those first few days after her Aunt Susan and her family had been murdered; the woman who became a mother to her.

“Dawn Fire, come child. We have much to talk.”

Silver Moon placed her hand to Hope’s back and escorted her into their camp. As they walked farther and farther from the arena and the sideshow attractions, Hope came to realize that much of what she now saw was the truth, the way she remember living when she was, Kiowa. The teepee where Iron Heart and family lived was central to the entire camp. Throughout the camp, young children helped with chores, while women prepared meals… And those in between being considered a child or a brave, took care of the herds. The young maidens of the camp were at their elders’ sides.

Silver Moon pulled aside the flap of the teepee and offered for Hope to enter first; Silver Moon allowed the flap to close as she joined Hope within.

“It is good to see you again daughter. Many times, I pray to the Great One that you are happy. I pray that your life is good?”

“It is, Silver Moon. The others?”

A smile broke across the woman’s face when she answered, “I am a grandmother many times over because of Grey Heart, Iron Talon, and Running Fox. When my husband and eldest sons returned without you, I mourned your loss. Iron Heart was proud when he received word that you were to marry and your father asked us to come. Yet, again, I mourned your loss upon our return home. I missed having my daughter sit in front of me, allowing me to brush her hair, talking woman’s words… baking bread or skinning hides…”

“I missed you too. It was difficult, but… the people of North Fork welcomed me as you did. I love my husband and his family…”

“Has the Great One blessed you with..” Silver Moon stopped talking.

Hope looked toward the flap upon hearing the voices of many braves cry out their victory. The voices outside abruptly quieted and the flap to the teepee opened, allowing the interior to be flooded with the sun, before it closed again.

“Dawn Fire, Grey Heart said you returned to us,” Iron Heart spoke to welcome the one who had been his daughter.

Hope stood to the side of the cooking area within the teepee, staring at Iron Heart, dressed in his full war bonnet and breastplate, holding his lance perpendicular to the ground.

“The teepee of Iron Heart has not been the same since you left,” Iron Heart offered as a way to entice Hope into conversation.

“Iron Heart and his family have been missed in my heart, too,” Hope answered.

“From what Grey Heart said and from what I see in your eyes, you do not approve of how we live.”

Thinking before she spoke, Hope finally answered, “I know I have no right to judge you and the tribe; I am no longer a member.”

Grey Heart took the lance Iron Heart held out to him. Iron Heart walked towards Hope, his arms held open, inviting her into an embrace. Hope cried again as Iron Heart wrapped his arms around her and spoke soothingly. In time, Hope regained control over her emotions and Iron Heart stepped to stand next to Silver Moon, placing his left hand on the right shoulder of his wife.

“Do not be angered by what you see outside. Cody calls us ‘actors’.” Iron Heart paused as he looked to Hope standing stoically in front of him. “Some day, I see the white man ‘acting’ their own great battles, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Chancellorsville, and Appomattox, before crowds of people. Dawn Fire, what you saw today is only a show, a show of the white man, but there are times when we are the victors.”

“But the white man sees you as savage because of what you do!”

“Little Big Horn is the history of both the white and the red man…” Iron Heart softly spoke.

“But the Kiowa were NOT there!”

“No, the Kiowa were not there, but the white man does not see the difference between the tribes, to them we are Indian. Though the white man comes from many countries, they do not see that we are different.”

“Then you must teach them the difference, the same as the difference between an American and someone from Ireland or England.”

“But from your history books, Americans are descendants from England, and other countries,” Grey Heart spoke.

“You use my words against me. Why? Why have you given up your way of life to do this?” demanded Hope.

“We do this so we may live a life off a reservation. Should we deny our young the chance to learn? When the white man’s children go to school; our children sit beside them to learn. Those who teach the young, teach of all the cultures in this settlement. The white man has taught us more of their words. Do you not hear how well we use the white man’s words? Have you not listened to hear that the white man uses our words when in conversation with us?” Iron Heart patiently spoke.

Hope continued to stand and listen to the words of Iron Heart, she turned to look at those who she had called brothers were nodding their heads in agreement.

Iron Heart continued, “What you have not seen is after, when the sun is chased from the sky; people from the towns we visit come to our village… Here, they see we are not the savages they read of… They freely walk among us, without fear. Men come and trade for our furs. Women trade for baskets, and beads, and ask questions… Should we be too proud to not use this as a way to teach our way of life to those who are willing to learn?”

“My eyes are as blind as those who only believe what is written,” Hope sorrowfully admitted.

“Dawn Fire, many moons ago, I knew our way would come to an end… We are proud, but by doing this, our way of life still lives and we are free.”

“Free? You do not follow the great buffalo herds… How can you say you are free?” Hope pleaded to understand.

“There are not many buffalo herds that roam the land, but we are allowed to be who we are and Mr. Cody understands our way of life and when the iron horse passes through a valley with a herd, he will stop the iron horse and we hunt. Red man and white man, side by side. He provides rifles so we may hunt at a distance so no brave has to get close to the beast and risk his life. He even asked me to teach him to hunt with a bow and arrow, as well as with the lance. The women, of all skin colors, white, red, black, brown, work side by side to skin the buffalo to provide food to sustain us and hides for clothing and blankets…”

“I understand what you are saying, but to see you on display…”

“The white men are on display too. Do not forget they have a part to play out there.”

“The white man has wronged the Indian in so many ways…” Hope answered.

“It was after the white man’s great war that I first encountered a scout, a fierce fighter, for the white man’s army. If I can put aside my past hatred of Mr. Cody, can you not put aside yours?”

“Hatred…”

“Hope, that is the name you are called, Hope?” Iron Heart asked.

“Yes, my name is Hope.”

“Your eyes show your hatred for how you think we have been treated. Mr. Cody treats us with respect and honor. He shares food in this teepee on many occasions, as do others. And Silver Moon and I have broken bread with Mr. Cody in the carriage of his iron horse”

From outside the tent, those within heard, “Iron Heart, a moment of your time?”

Iron Heart stepped to the flap and exited the teepee only to return a short time later with another man, the one who had sat upon the large white horse.

“Glad to have found you, I’m William Cody.”

“I didn’t need finding,” Hope answered.

“One of my managers saw you running from the arena, and a lone woman can cause quite a commotion around here. Myself and a few of my Rough Riders have scoured the entire settlement in search of you, in an effort to avoid any real life re-enactment of any of our performances.”

“You need not worry about that, I have no fear of being scalped.”

“Scalped? Little lady, these Indians are my friends, why they’d no more try to scalp you than they would me,” boasted Buffalo Bill Cody.

“They may not, but I might…” Hope replied.

“I see by the ring on your left hand you are a married woman and I really must insist that you return to join those you came with. If you’ll come with me? Don’t need no woman getting all hysterical and raising unnecessary alarm…”

“Hysterical! I’ll have you know, I am not a hysterical woman. I’ll stand up to any brave or rough rider you have!”

“Dawn Fire!” scolded Silver Moon.

“I’ll not have him belittle you or me!” Hope declared.

“Dawn Fire?” repeated Cody.

“Mr. Cody, the one who stands before you is as a daughter to us, she once lived with us, and was called Dawn Fire,” Silver Moon answered.

“I did not mean to belittle you nor do I demean my friendship with Iron Heart and his people. I know of you, Iron Heart spoke fondly of you when we shared a piece pipe when he first joined our show.”

“You did more than share a piece pipe,” stated Silver Moon as she remembered how drunk the two became on that occasion.

“We won’t go into that part of the story. Ma’am, I think it would be best if you were to come with me and I do not ask for your own good, but for the protection of our friends. There are those who would take your disappearance as an excuse to cause trouble for Iron Heart or any of the tribes. I wish to avoid this at all costs. Please… will you come with me?”

Cody extended his arm and waited for Hope to make up her mind. Soon, she nodded and accepted Buffalo Bill Cody’s arm

Before they left the teepee, Iron Heart spoke in Kiowa, “It was good to see you.”

“I hope we may see each other again,” Hope answered in Kiowa. In English, she continued, “Maybe you can teach me to see with open eyes and an open heart.” Hope gave a brief smile before she turned and left.

*****

“So, where should I see you to?” Cody asked as they stepped from the teepee.

“Probably your ticket gate, I presume my husband would be waiting for me there,” answered Hope.

Buffalo Bill escorted Hope during their walk towards the entrance to the settlement, as they approached they heard the rumblings of a rather unfriendly crowd. Dropping Hope’s hand from his arm, Cody ran to see what was causing the trouble.

“People! People! Quiet down!” Cody demanded as he jumped up on a table.

“They can’t get away with kidnapping a white woman,” a man in the crowd yelled.

“She wasn’t kidnapped!” another man called out in an attempt to disburse the crowd. “Everyone, please, just go back to your homes!”

“I saw her run off! Scared to death she was! Saw a filthy injun grab her by the arm!” the man yelled again. “Burn them all! That will teach ‘em!”

Buffalo Bill heard the one man declare, “Trumble, stop drumming up trouble! You don’t know what you’re talking about!”

“I know what I saw, them injuns have a white woman captive! If you’re not man enough… Come one men!”

Without waiting any longer, Cody pulled his handgun and fired into the air causing an immediate silence to settle around the crowd.

“People! We can handle this without your interference!” Cody heard the young man yell.

“Just who is supposed to be missing?!” Hope dared yell as she walked up to face the crowd. “Have you nothing better to do than let whiskey do your talking?! If you were real men, everyone here would be ashamed for their actions!”

“Is that her?” someone in the crowd yelled.

“That’s her!” another answered.

“Folks, as you can see, there has been no harm done to this young woman and as such, it is getting late and the show grounds are closed. Now please, go back to your homes!” Buffalo Bill Cody declared.

Through mumbled words, the crowd quieted and slowly disbursed, while Buffalo Bill stepped down from the table. Taking his hat in one hand, he pulled a bandanna from his pocket to wipe his brow.

Cody watched as one man broke away from the other two, the young one who had tried to calm the crowd, and wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close. Cody smiled when he saw her somewhat relax into the man’s arms.

“Gentlemen, no harm was done to the young woman. She just got curious and wandered off. One of my men saw her and came to get me to rescue her.”

Pushing herself back, Hope declared to Buffalo Bill, “I say again, I did nothing to need rescuing.” Turning back to Mark, “Iron Heart is here.”

“Here, where?” an incredulous Mark asked.

“In the settlement, I recognized him when the performance started… that’s why I ran. I’m ashamed for what I accused. Mr. Cody, with your permission, I’d like to return tomorrow. My husband and I, oh, this is my husband, Marshal Mark McCain, my father, Deputy Seth Lane, and Marshal Johnny Drako.”

“Ma’am, I met your marshal and your father when we first arrived. Mr. McCain, pleased to meet you. I guess we all kind of jumped to conclusions today. Little Lady, we only have a mid-afternoon performance tomorrow; I’d be honored to host all, you and your family after your church services.”

Cody tipped his hat and walked back into the settlement, he halted his stride, shook his head, before he continued walking to his quarters.

*****

“Hope what did you accuse?” Seth asked.

“I accused Iron Heart of betraying who he was,” Hope cast her eyes down as she answered her father. “I have a lot to learn and to apologize for. Where are the boys?”

“Johnny and I came to check on how the roustabouts were behaving and saw Mark looking rather, anxious. We took them back to town and left them with Lilah before returning. We just go back when Cody fired his gun,” Seth answered.

The Next Generation… Chapter 106 – Kiowa Reacquainted

Upon hearing that they would be meeting real, live Indians, the boys begged and pleaded to be able to ride their ponies to the settlement.

“But we have church, tomorrow is Sunday!” stated Hope. “You’ll be in your Sunday clothes.”

“We can pack other clothes to change into. Mama, them Indians need to know that we can ride!” Zach stated.

“Please, we all have to ride our horses, you too Mama,” Josh pleaded.

“What of Eli and your sisters?” asked Mark.

“Can’t they ride with Grandma and Grandpa?” Zach asked.

“I ride with Papa!” Eli declared.

After discussing the situation with Lucas and Milly, and having Myra and Little Ted overhear the others would be riding their horses, they too pleaded to ride their horses. Milly stated she would drive the buckboard with Mykaela and Faith, as well as the carpetbags with their change of clothes.

*****

After church, the McCains stopped by Seth and Lilah’s in order to change their clothes before proceeding to the settlement.

“You come with us, Grandpa?” Eli asked as Seth handed him up to Mark.

“I’ll stop by the settlement after the performance. Someone has to keep an eye on the town while you and your papa are having fun.”

Seth wasn’t quite sure he wanted to meet Iron Heart and the others. He had invited them to Hope’s wedding, but after he learned of why Hope had tried to kill herself a few years prior, he wasn’t sure he wanted to know more of her life with the Kiowa.

*****

Buffalo Bill Cody, his show manager Johnny Baker, and Chief Iron Heart waited at the entrance to the settlement, “Welcome! Welcome one and all!” Buffalo Bill declared as the McCain families arrived.

The children were wide-eyed in amazement as they stepped down from their horses, or were helped down from the buckboard. Mark introduced his parents and had to hide his laughter as the children huddled together to be introduced to the three men who greeted them.

“Pleasure to meet each and every one of you. I wish that I could show you around, but Johnny and I need to get ready for this afternoon’s performance. If you’ll excuse us?”

Cody tipped his hat and walked away.

*****

Several braves ran to the group when Iron Heart motioned for them, which caused the children to step back and seek protection from their parents.

“The children of McCain have nothing to fear, you are welcome as honored guests into our camp,” Iron Heart stated as he knelt down and waited.

“You’re not gonna scalp us?” Little Ted dared ask as he looked from behind Lucas.

“No, you have my word as chief of the Kiowa that you will not be harmed.”

“What about the others?” asked Myra as she stood next to Milly and pointed to the others.

“They too will give you their word. Anyone you meet from our tribe will be your friend.”

“You mean it? We can meet everyone?” Josh asked as he stepped closer to Iron Heart.

“Yes, we will be honored to show you our camp and teach you of our way of life.” Pointing to his son, “This is Grey Heart, he will show you where to take your ponies.”

As the children followed Grey Heart, the elder McCains smiled as they heard the barrage of questions asked and the patience Grey Heart showed in answering the questions.

“Iron Talon will see to your team. Come, I show you where you can put your horses, then I’ll show you to our teepee.”

As they walked along, Iron Heart commented, “May I commend you upon your own horses. They are… the word escapes me…”

“Beautiful?” offered Hope.

“They are that, but the word I was thinking… mag… mag…”

“Magnificent,” offered Milly.

“That is the word. Have you thought of breeding them?”

“They kind of took care of that themselves, earlier this Spring,” Mark replied.

“Should be a strong foal.”

*****

Running Fox opened the gates to several corrals where Blade, Rainmaker, Two-Bits, and the team could be turned loose.

“If you don’t mind, Iron Heart, I’d prefer to keep Rainmaker saddled; as a U.S. Marshal, I really need to be ready to ride at all times.”

“You are no longer a deputy, but a U.S. Marshal? I am sorry I did not see the change,” spoke Iron Heart.

Iron Talon excused himself from the group as Iron Heart led the way to the center of the settlement and to his teepee.

Silver Moon excitedly asked, “Are these your children?” when she saw Mark carrying a young child on his hip and Hope holding the hand of another.

“These are our daughters, Mykaela and Faith,” answered Hope.

Silver Moon could not keep the disappointment from her voice when she asked, “The Great One has not blessed you with a son?”

“Oh, he has,” replied Hope. “Grey Heart is helping them take care of their ponies and showing them and Mark’s younger brothers and sister around.”

“They, the Great One blessed you with two sons?” asked Silver Moon with a smile spreading across her face.

“He has blessed us with three strong sons. Silver Moon, these are Mark’s parents.”

“I remember from your wedding,” Silver Moon stated as she graciously greeted Lucas, Milly, and Mark. “You have met Grey Heart, this is his wife, Moon Shadow. Iron Talon took Crying Dove to his teepee, and Running Fox took White Morning.”

“You said yesterday, you were blessed with many grandchildren,” stated Hope.

“You will meet them later, they are with Grey Heart and Iron Talon,” answered Silver Moon. “Please be seated. We have prepared a meal for you.” As the others took their seats, she continued. “We are pleased you returned with your whole family. I have longed to know if you are truly happy and I know you are; I can see the love of your family.”

The group had finished their lunch when they heard the unmistakable sounds of children, running and yelling, coming their way. The McCains quickly rose to their feet to make sure their children were not the cause of any trouble.

“Papa, you’ll never guess what!” Little Ted called, out of breath, as he abruptly halted causing Levi to run into him and fall.

Josh and Zach were quick to help Levi to his feet; they too were excitedly calling out.

“Easy there!” Mark called as he tried to restore order to the mob of McCain children and children from the camp.

Iron Heart yelled even louder as he too attempted to restore order; silence quickly surrounded the group.

Silver Moon stood with her hands clasped together when she saw the children; curious as to which ones were Hope’s.

With hands on his hips, Mark declared, “And I thought we had raised proper children, not a mob of banshees.”

“But Papa,” Josh dared speak.

“First, you will thank Chief Iron Heart and Silver Moon for allowing you to visit their camp.”

Introductions of all the children were made and appropriate respect was given by white and Indian child alike.

“Now, what was so important?” asked Lucas.

“It’s Sunday!” Little Ted declared as if that would answer his father’s question.

“I know it is, just what does today being Sunday have to do with the lot of you creating such a ruckus?”

“Just say yes, Grandpa,” Josh chimed in.

“And just what is your Grandpa saying yes to?” Mark seriously asked, upon folding his arms and casting a disapproving look to his eldest.

“Mr. Grey Heart and Soaring Hawk said we could ride during the performance today. They say on Sundays the children are part of the performance. Please? We can only ride if you say we can,” Little Ted rapidly spoke.

*****

The Silver Moon suggested to Iron Heart and Grey Heart that they take Lucas, Mark, and the children, to discuss the arrangements. Hope stared at Silver Moon upon hearing the name Soaring Hawk.

“He lived?” asked Hope when Silver Moon looked to her.

“Yes, he lives.”

Milly walked to stand next to Hope and placed a hand upon her shoulder, Milly remembered when Hope had told her about Soaring Hawk. Upon seeing Mykaela and Faith starting to yawn, Silver Moon suggested, “Why not put them down for their naps inside, they will be safe.”

Silver Moon opened the flap and helped Hope put her daughters down for their nap.

Upon exiting the teepee, Hope stood to see a young Indian boy wearing leather breeches and a leather vest with many beads adorning it, standing by the campfire, watching. As with most young Indians, he was lean and muscular, little fat appeared on his young body.

“Soaring Hawk, come here,” called Silver Moon, using the Kiowa language, as she motioned with her hand for the boy to approach.

“Yes, Silver Moon,” the boy answered, in Kiowa.

“Do you know who this is?” asked Silver Moon.

“If she is who Grey Heart said, she is Dawn Fire, the one who kept me alive after my parents died.”

“Since you know who she is, we will speak using the white man’s language.”

“I am pleased to meet you,” Soaring Hawk stated, bowing his head slightly forward.

“I’m pleased to see you… so grown up,” offered Hope as she smiled at the boy.

“I thank you for milking the goats and giving me the gift of my life,” Soaring Hawk spoke.

Hope nodded as she remembered the sad events that prompted her to take care of the baby, who now stood before her as a young boy.

“It was nice to meet you, but…”

“But what?” Hope asked.

“If I have paid my proper respects, may I go play with the others?”

Silver Moon nodded and playfully pushed Soaking Hawk away. “Go.” Upon turning to Hope, “Do not think poorly of him.”

“He is precious, as any child his age. He’d be ten now?”

Silver Moon nodded.

*****

Time passed quickly and soon it was time for the afternoon performance, a special performance including the children from the camp and the young McCains. Mark and Lucas kept to the fringe of the arena, having planned to help keep an eye on their children, not that they expected them to cause trouble, but they didn’t know how they or their ponies would react. Rainmaker and Blade displayed they were upset at not being able to join the others; both fidgeted and would not stand still, several times Mark had to calm Rainmaker as he reared. Regardless of the antics of their own horses, fatherly pride swelled in the hearts of both McCain men as they watched their children perform with the others.

*****

The McCains rode behind their children, watching them interact with their new friends and laughing as they made their way back to the settlement following the performance. Mark was quick to hear, “We’ve been robbed!” when he turned Rainmaker and headed toward the man who yelled. Mark’s vision followed in the direction the man pointed; at least three riders were racing away from the ticket booth. Mark didn’t hesitate to give chase; Lucas hesitated long enough to hear Iron Heart say, “Go, we take care of them.”

The crowd thought the robbery was all part of the show; they applauded and cheered the riders on, outlaws and lawmen alike. Mark and Lucas carefully guided their horses through the crowd so as not to run anyone over.

Father and son made their way to open ground and gave chase, encouraging their horses into a gallop. They were soon joined by Seth Lane and Johnny Drako, who had been riding to the show grounds, and upon seeing Mark and Lucas racing their horses, urged their own horses to catch up.

*****

The only comfort the posse had as they gave chase to the three robbers was that they were out of range when their quarry turned in their saddles and fired upon them. But the outlaws failed to recognize that each time they fired, they were slightly giving up ground to their pursuers. Even when the posse lost sight of the outlaws over a rise or around a rock outcropping, there was a cloud of dust to show them the way.

As the chase wore on, Seth and Johnny felt their horses faltering, regardless how much they encouraged their horses, they were unable to keep pace with Lucas’ or Mark’s horses; the two slowed their pace, hoping to give their horses a brief respite. At the same time, the horses the outlaws were riding were also faltering; the men whipped and spurred their horses without mercy. They had managed to make it to a rocky butte, where they jumped from their horses, abandoning the moneybags, and ran. They began their ascent, recklessly picking their route, losing their footing, sliding down a ways, only to try again.

Lucas and Mark reached the outlaws’ abandoned horses and silently surveyed the location, and without a word, made their way to an adjacent rock outcropping. Mark chose to stay at ground level, behind a cottonwood tree, offering protection to Lucas who carefully made his way up the hill. Lucas heard Mark’s rifle fire and ricochet numerous times in response to the outlaws’ gunfire. Several times the outlaws fired bullets in both their directions, but none came close to striking their intended targets. Lucas heard a rifle shot from below followed closely by a human cry as a bullet from Mark’s rifle struck true. Lucas paused and cast his gaze to see the man’s fall turn into a rockslide gathering other loosened rocks, causing a cascading effect down the face of the butte. The man’s body came to a rest at the foot of the hill, covered over by an avalanche of rocks and dirt.

Lucas finally reached a location that offered him excellent coverage and an advantage over the remaining robbers. Lucas carefully aimed his rifle, and smiled when he heard his own ricochet and a man yelp as rock chips struck one of the outlaws. Without needing to be told, he was going to do his best to bring the remaining men in alive.

Johnny and Seth arrived to add support from the ground, allowing Mark to make his way up the rock face from a different direction than what Lucas took. Mark prayed the others would keep the outlaws distracted enough to prevent them from seeing him as he worked to gain an advantage of his own. Seth kept an eye on his son-in-law and fired anytime he saw Mark start to slide, driving the outlaws back from the edge; giving Mark the time to regain his footing, without the outlaws being wise to his planned counter-attack.

Mark finally had the high ground; he stood, allowing the sun to cast his shadow across their quarry. The men tried to shield the sun from their eyes as they looked up. Lucas’ fired one last shot, striking between the two men.

“We give up!” one of the men yelled as he threw his handgun over the rocks.

“Nos damos por vencidos! ¡No disparen!” the other yelled, dropping his gun. “No me mates!”

Lucas kept his rifle trained on the two as Mark pointed for them to make their way down. Mark waited until the two had reached the ground, slipping and falling one into the other, causing more rocks to start an avalanche, before he started his way down. But first, he picked up the Mexican’s handgun, emptied the bullets, and slipped the gun into his belt.

While Johnny and Seth took care of the surviving outlaws and Lucas made his way to the ground, Mark emptied his rifle and set it aside in order to dig the other outlaw out from under the debris. By the time Lucas reached Mark, he had exposed enough of the man’s upper torso to see that he too was Mexican. Mark sat up after listening for a heartbeat and shook his head in answer when Lucas placed his hand to Mark’s shoulder.

“I’ll get his horse and some rope to tie him over the saddle.”

Once Lucas returned with the man’s horse, he helped his son finish digging the man out.

“He wasn’t there when I pulled the trigger. I didn’t intend to kill him,” commented Mark as they pulled the man free.

“No one will hold his death against you Mark. You’ve the badge on your side,” Drako stated as he approached the McCains, “Commendable that you’re able to bring the other two in alive.”

“It took all of us to do that,” answered Mark.

*****

Mark felt three sets of concerned eyes upon him as he climbed into the saddle, he knew why they were looking at him, and he took comfort in their unvoiced concerns.

“Do you two think you can keep up with us?” teased Mark, trying to turn their attention from him. “Or should Pa and I leave a trail for you to follow?”

“Keep up? We laid back to make sure they didn’t have any other associates waiting to spring a trap on you two,” declared Johnny Drako as he pushed his hat back on his head, leaned forward in his saddle and rested his arm on the saddle horn. “Can you believe him? A U.S. Marshal and he races in without thinking about a trap.”

“I thought you trained him better than that,” Seth joined in the teasing.

“I did,” Drako seriously answered, looking squarely at Mark.

“So you did. But it’s not like we didn’t know the two of you were back there,” Mark replied. “Okay, touche’. Let’s get them back to town.”

“What about the money?” Lucas asked.

“I already grabbed it from this one’s saddlebag,” commented Mark, extending his rifle to reach for the reins to the dead man’s horse, before turning for North Fork.

*****

Lucas led the group as they entered North Fork, dusk was settling, casting long shadows across the main street. Storekeepers had long closed up for the day, if they had even been open on a Sunday, while Sweeney was lighting the lanterns that hung on either side of the swinging doors to his saloon. The two surviving outlaws, with their hands tied to the saddle horns, rode between Johnny and Seth as they broke off to head to the Marshal’s Office.

Mark started to lead the horse with the dead outlaw to the undertaker’s, “Pa, go on to Iron Heart’s, let Milly and Hope know we’re back safely,” said Mark.

“I think I’ll wait for you to finish. You still have the money and I’m sure Cody will be anxious to get it back.”

Without saying any more, Lucas waited; he knew how Mark had to be feeling…after taking a life. He wanted to be there for his son.

*****

Stepping down from their horses in front of the show office, they met Johnny Baker and Bill Cody, “Here’s everything they stole,” Mark called out as he handed over two moneybags.

“Little did I know when I offered to host you and your families this afternoon, that I would also be indebted to you for saving our box office,” Buffalo Bill stated. “Johnny, see that this gets placed in the safe.”

“Yes, sir, Mr. Cody.”

“So did you take them alive or did ya kill ‘em?” asked Cody.

“Two are at the Marshal’s Office and one is at the undertaker’s,” Lucas answered, a little upset at Cody’s carefree attitude about killing.

Buffalo Bill continued to offer his thanks when Johnny Drako and Seth Lane joined them, it was then that a look of recognition came to Cody’s face. “Forgive me, but I do declare, I have finally put everything together… Mark McCain, The Lawman…Lucas McCain, The Rifleman…Johnny Drako…The Gunslinger. Well, if this don’t beat all!” Cody slapped his gloves against his thigh. “And you, Seth Lane, you carry yourself as one who has served in the Army.”

“Yes, for over twenty years I served in the U.S. Cavalry, I resigned my commission as a Major a few years back,” answered Seth.

Cody removed his hat and scratched at his head. “I tell you what; I want to offer all four of you a place in my show. I’ll bill you as The Four Guns of North Fork.” Cody raised his hands over his head, at first together, but he spread them apart as if to emphasize the title of the banner he had in mind.

“I have a job, I’m a U.S. Marshal,” Mark replied.

“No thank you, we all have families,” Johnny replied.

“Cody, none of us use our guns for money, we defend our town and those who visit us,” replied Lucas.

“Personally, I spent too many nights out on patrol and I’ve come to enjoy sleeping in a good, solid bed, and knowing where that bed will be, at all times,” Seth seriously jested.

“It would sure be some shootout.” Bill twisted his mustache as if not hearing their objections.

“Shootout?” asked Mark, but unsure if Cody heard him.

Cody yelled out, “Annie! Frank! Over here!”

After introducing Annie Oakley and Frank Butler, Cody insisted in leading the group to a long bench table and invited everyone to have a seat. Many in the crowd strolling by were awed in seeing who all sat around the table, talking as if they were old friends, but behind the veil of their civilized talks, Cody was trying his damnedest to see that his show had a new attraction to draws crowds like none before. Those from North Fork were trying their best to explain to Cody the reason for their objections.

“Listen Cody,” Drako stated, narrowing his steely eyes. “We have a nice quiet town, a town I happen to like just the way she is. You put banners out like that and you’ll only be giving outlaws an excuse to come and disturb what we’ve worked hard to create. A safe town, a peaceful town…”

“Bill, it is an interesting proposition, but we’re all in agreement, we must decline. If you’ll excuse us, we best be getting to our families, they’re probably worried about us,” Lucas eventually stated as he reached for his hat.

“At least your family saw you ride out,” Seth stated. “Lilah is probably worried sick about me. I told her I’d be home long before now to bring her to the camp.”

“Mr. Cody, thank you for your hospitality,” Mark offered.

Buffalo Bill thought quickly, he needed a little more time. “Then I insist all of you shall receive complimentary tickets for your families to next Saturday’s performance. It’s the least I can do.”

Cody called out to Johnny Baker and instructed him to bring enough tickets to allow all the family members to come to the show.

*****

Bill Cody’s Four Guns of North Fork walked to the front of the sideshow area, when Mark asked, “Were you able to find out who they were?”

“All three have wanted posters out of Texas. I wired the Rangers to let them know we had two of them in custody. Amos said he’d leave any response under the door to the office.

As the four continued to talk, a young boy ran up to them, “Excuse, please. I, Soaring Hawk. Iron Heart sent me, bring to his fire.”

“Son, please thank your chief, but I had best get home to my wife,” stated Seth.

Johnny Drako also begged his apologies that he needed to get back to his family.

“Sirs, families with Iron Heart and Silver Moon. Mr. Cody send riders, they are with McCains.”

The group followed Soaring Hawk, “I tell you, young ones have much fun today.”

Their wives patiently, if not nervously, waited for their arrival, but were unable to restrain themselves when they saw them; each ran to their respective husband and welcomed him back.

“Iron Horse, thank you for watching over our families,” Lucas stated as he walked to the chief and extended his hand, the one not wrapped around Milly’s waist.

“It was the proper thing to do.”

Mark quietly asked of Hope, only seeing Faith in his wife’s arms, “Where are the other children?”

“Inside,” Hope pointed to the teepee; she stopped Mark from leaving her side.

Milly, Hope, Lou, and Lilah insisted that their husbands come to sit beside them. As if upon cue, the elders took beating the drums around the fire. Women from the village brought plates of food to give to them. In the language of the Kiowa, the tribe members began their song. Soon the flap to the teepee opened and an Indian woman led the McCain and the two oldest Drako children out, the flames from the campfire illuminated the excitement on their faces as they joined other children from the camp.

With Faith sitting in his lap, Mark looked around to see Johnny and Lou, each holding one of the twins in their laps. Mark clapped his daughter’s hands in rhythm to the drums, she squealed in laughter while everyone watched the children dance.

Buffalo Bill Cody soon joined the group around the fire and smiled as he realized the significance of the dance – a dance of brotherhood.

At the end of the dance, several Indian women led the children back to the teepees from which they came. With lateness of the night, the youngest ones were put to bed, but still the evening and entertainment progressed outside the teepee. Try as each one might, with all the excitement and activity of the day, they couldn’t keep the Sandman from seeing them to peaceful dreams.

*****

By the end of the evening, Lucas stated, “Thank you for a wonderful evening,” as they prepared to get the other children to take them home.

“Please, leave the little ones here; they’ve had such a wonderful day and made many new friends. We will watch over them as if they were our own,” Silver Moon asked.

“We can’t ask that of you,” Hope replied.

“It was not asked, it was offered. It fills my heart to share the laughter of so many children, including your children. Please… Let us say proper goodbyes in the morning.”

All agreed that the older children would spend the night in the camp of the Kiowa and the Drakos and McCains would return by eight o’clock the following morning.

*****

Night had settled when Cody entered the trailer housing the show office and spoke with Johnny Baker.

“You want what?!” Baker asked, unbelieving what he’d heard.

“You heard me, I want you to have Pony ride to the surrounding towns and put an announcement in all the local papers regarding a special performance by the Four Guns of North Fork.”

“But they said no. Oh, I get it. The tickets were an excuse to make sure they come back. I take it you’re gonna keep this a secret from them?”

“They turned me down once; they can’t do it in front of a large crowd. I want people from miles around to know this is happening. I’ll get my show! Annie and Frank are good draws; however, I’m sure that there are many people in this territory who would change their minds to travel here, if only to find who’s the better shot. There’ll never be another showdown like it.” Bill stretched his legs out on top of his desk, while he leaned back in his chair, interlacing his fingers behind his head. “Ain’t ever gonna be another show like this one.”

“And if they don’t agree?”

“They will. The crowd will see to it that they will.” Cody’s eye held a gleam of someone who knew how to get what he wanted.

*****

The families returned to the Kiowa camp Monday morning to collect their children. After bidding goodbye to Johnny and Lou Drako and Lucas and Milly McCain, Silver Moon asked, “Do you have to go? It has been long and I enjoyed your children yesterday, please, won’t you stay. Mr. Cody said we are to stay here and rest before traveling. I would like to spend more time with you and the little ones have had such fun with their new friends.”

Hope’s eyes asked, even though she knew her husband would say yes.

“You make sure you mind your manners,” Mark replied upon pointing to his children.

“Can we really stay and play with the others?” Zach asked.

“Yes, but I’m still the marshal and if I hear you’ve done anything wrong…” warned Mark.

“We’ll behave!”

The boys ran off to play while Moon Shadow took Mykaela and Faith to be with her youngest, allowing Silver Moon and Hope to talk.

*****

“Silver Moon, would you like to go into town. I have other friends who I would love for you to meet; people who welcomed me shortly after I started living here.”

Riding astride their horses, the two women rode into North Fork. Their first stop was at the Day Care where Hope introduced Silver Moon to Hattie and explained how at first she had lived with Milly, until Milly married Mark’s father. Then she lived with Hattie who treated her as her grandchild, until it was time for her to wed Mark.

“She still treats me as her grandchild, as she does Mark, too.”

Next Hope introduced Gwen to Silver Moon and explained how Gwen had come to live with them, before marrying her husband.

“When is your little one due?” Silver Moon asked.

Rubbing her hands over her pregnant stomach, Gwen stated with a smile, “Sometime in November.”

The four women spent time talking while they watched a few of the children play, until Micah walked through the door.

“Micah, I want you to meet Silver Moon,” Hope announced.

The two graciously greeted each other.

“Thought I’d invite my wife to lunch, would you care to join us?” offered Micah.

“Thank you but we need to get back to the village; I wanted Silver Moon to meet the rest of my family and a few others.”

Micah tipped his hat as he offered his arm to Hattie.

“Gwen are you okay to stay here?” asked Hope.

“Sure, there’s only the three today. It’s an easy day. Hattie said she’d watch them this afternoon, giving me time to go to Lilah’s to be fitted for new clothes while I’m carrying this little one. Jake will come for me after he’s done out at Lucas and Milly’s.”

The women said goodbye.

*****

Stepping to the boardwalk, Hope called out, “Mrs. Donner?”

The woman turned and made her way to where Hope and Silver Moon stood.

“Madelyn, I’d like for you to meet Silver Moon, she raised me as her daughter, after Iron Heart found me.”

Hope smelled the man approaching and moved out of the way before he could bump into her. She couldn’t make out what he was saying as mumbled under his drunken breath.

“Silver Moon, this is Madelyn Donner, she runs the general store and between her and Lou, they helped me choose my clothes once I came live in town. She has been a good friend.”

Next, Hope introduced Silver Moon to Stevan Griswald, informing her that he was her first teacher; Mark had only been a student teacher while working with her those first few months.

*****

That evening, Sweeney nervously ran into the Marshal’s Office, “Johnny, he’s at it again.”

“Trumble?” Drako asked.

“Who else?”

“Uh Mark, I think Johnny can handle him,” Sweeney stated.

Mark paused in reaching for his hat and rifle, “What do you mean, it’s always taken at least two to deal with him,” replied Mark.

“It would be for the best… if you didn’t…” was Sweeney’s response.

“He’s coming,” Drako insisted.

“He ain’t being…kind.”

The three entered the saloon to hear Trumble stirring up trouble.

“I tell ya, he’s a squaw man.”

Nils tried to quiet him, “You’re out of line!”

“There’s nothing worse than a white woman raised as a squaw. Ain’t nothing worse than a white man marrying one; and raising bastards.”

The saloon silenced as the others recognized who walked through the door.

“TRUMBLE!” Drako yelled.

Not turning around, Trumble declared, “I’ve paid my tab! If fact, I’ve paid more than what me and my friends have drunk.”

“You’re coming with us!” ordered Drako.

“Us?” Trumble teased as he turned around. “Filthy stinkin’ injun lover. No wonder ya weren’t concerned when they took your squaw.” Trumble pulled himself to his full height and took several steps towards Mark. “And you…you ain’t worth the dirt I walk on.” Trumble spat on the floor in front of Mark.

Mark did his best to keep his temper in check, allowing that Trumble was drunk; his reaction surprised those present because he didn’t tear into the man, but his body posture reflected his turmoil.

“Trumble, I’m not asking, I’m ordering you to shut your mouth and come with us,” Drako again ordered.

“An old washed up, has been gunfighter and a squaw man are what this town has for lawmen.” Trumble bellowed a hollow laugh, and with speed belying his bulk, he charged Johnny and Mark.

The new hostess at the saloon, screamed as she saw Trumble crash into the two lawmen, driving them through the swinging doors and out onto the boardwalk. Johnny had gone for his gun and barely cleared his holster when the weight of Trumble drove the breath from him. Mark had the butt of his rifle in motion, aiming directly for Trumble’s jaw when the impact threw him backwards causing him to struggle to inhale as Trumble landed upon him. Trumble bellowed his anger as he stood to his feet, and prepared to kick Johnny. The other patrons in the saloon jumped from their chairs or left the bar and crowded the doorway and windows to watch the fight, that didn’t materialize when Seth Lane brought the butt of his revolver to the back of Trumble’s head.

“You two okay?” asked Seth upon returning his gun to his holster.

“Yeah, give me a hand up,” asked Johnny, extending his arm.

Once to his feet, Johnny turned to Mark, “How about you? Here,” he said upon extending his arm to Mark after Mark had pushed Trumble from him.

“Ow,” complained Mark, rubbing at his ribs once he was to his feet. “How many times will this make that we’ve had to drag him to jail?”

“Too many to count,” Nils stated as he exited the saloon and offered to help.

*****

The group relaxed upon hearing the cell door clank closed and Johnny turned the key to lock it.

“Nils, will you go wake Micah and ask him to come to the office?” Seth asked.

“Why are you wanting to wake Micah?” Mark asked, after letting out a groan in sitting down at his desk.

“Because I want Doc Burrage to have a look at the two of you, I didn’t like the way I heard both of you huffing and puffing getting him here.” Seth motioned with his head towards the cell where Trumble lay.

“I’ll be fine,” Drako stated.

“No you aren’t, you still look pale. Nils, do as I said.”

“Okay, Seth,” Nils hurried out the door before Johnny or Mark could countermand Seth’s orders.

*****

Johnny heard Lou enter the clinic, asking, “Where is he?”, “In here Lou,” he replied.

Lou entered the room to see a shirtless Johnny sitting on the examination table as Doc Burrage tightly wrapped his ribs in a large bandage.

“He’ll be okay in a week or so. Nothing to get overly worried about, Lou,” Sarah McCafferty volunteered as she handed a pair of scissors to Thadd.

“Was it Trumble?” Lou whispered as she gently placed a kiss to Johnny’s cheek.

“When is it not him?” Johnny replied.

“Why did ye try to take him on by yerself?”

“He didn’t, Mark’s next door,” Thadd replied.

Setting his roll of tape down, Thadd stated, “There, he’s all yours Mrs. Drako.”

“Thank ye, Doc. Can I take him home?”

“It’s still my town to oversee…”

“Not tonight, the doc said ye’re all mine,” Lou replied, with a gleam in her eye.

“I did say you were all hers,” Thadd laughed. “Take it easy for a few days. Stop back by on Thursday and I’ll take a look at those ribs again.”

*****

“Well Mark, seems you took the brunt of Trumble’s tumble.”

“Don’t make me laugh, Doc. They’re just a few bruised ribs, I’ve had bruised ribs before,” Mark diagnosed.

“It’s a little more serious than a few bruised ribs, Mark. I think with Trumble’s weight, he actually cracked a few of your ribs. They’re not broken, just cracked. Regardless you and Johnny are going to be wrapped up for a week or so. I don’t think it will stop either of you from doing your jobs, but just try to take it easy. I’ll give you a prescription you can have filled at the general store in the morning; it’ll help alleviate some of your pain.”

“My pain is dealing with a drunken Trumble all the time,” Mark expressed his frustration.

“Mark, try to take it easy and next time Trumble gets so drunk, maybe you should wire Ethan and have him bring in the cavalry to deal with him.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” teased Mark.

Placing the tray to the desk, Sarah stated, “Mark, I don’t know why, but ever since he first bumped into you at the Sweetheart’s Dance, he’s not had a liking for you.”

“It’s only going to get worse,” Mark whispered, not realizing he said it loud enough for Thadd to hear.

“Sarah, we’re through here, why don’t you go on home for the night.”

“Good night, Thadd, Mark.”

Sarah left the office.

“Okay, so why are things going to get worse?” Thadd asked.

“What?”

“Mark, I’m your friend. Let me help you.”

“There’s nothing else. Thanks for bandaging my ribs, Doc.”

Hearing a knock on the door, neither had time to say come in before the door opened to have Seth enter the room.

“Well? How’s my son-in-law?”

“Stubborn. Maybe you’ll tell me what else happened tonight?”

“Just Trumble being drunk and spouting off,” answered Seth.

“Okay, be that way. Listen, I’m your friend as well as your doctor. Most times people confide in me.”

Thadd stood back and crossed his arms, waiting.

“Doc, Trumble was spouting off about Hope and… Well, he said some mighty unpleasant things…that I don’t care to repeat, I’m just worried about people who are new to town and don’t really know Hope.”

“Mark, don’t keep this from her. She has a right to know, so she can be prepared to handle the situation, should it arise, when she comes to town. She should hear it from you, not someone in town who doesn’t know any better. Besides, you have plenty of friends who will be the first to correct anyone who dares repeat anything Trumble says.”

“Doc, again, I’ll heed your words of wisdom,” Mark stated as he pulled on his shirt and began to button it, before tucking his shirttail into his pants.

*****

“Thanks for watching the office,” Mark said to Micah as he escorted him to the boardwalk.

“You sure you’re okay to take over,” Micah asked.

“Yeah, with Trumble in jail, who else is going to cause us trouble? Go home and give Hattie a kiss from me.”

*****

Drako returned to the office Tuesday late morning only to have Wyman Wimbleduff corner him, “I want to press charges!”

“Who punched you in the nose?” Drako asked, seeing blood seep through Wimbleduff’s fingers as he held his hand over his nose.

“You’ll put her in jail, won’t you?” Wimbleduff asked.

“Her? Just who punched you?”

“That new hostess.”

“A woman did this?” Mark asked, unable to keep the laughter from his voice.

“I want to press charges!”

“Okay, let me get you to Doc’s and Mark will go and get her side of the story.”

“There ain’t no story, she punched me!” Wimbleduff proclaimed.

k*****

Mark walked into Sweeney’s, surprised by the sight that greeted him; the men were cheering and congratulating someone who stood amid them. Slowly the group parted allowing Mark to see a pretty woman standing at the middle of the bar.

“Well Marshal, I presume you’re here to take me to jail?” the woman asked, holding her arms out as if ready to be handcuffed.

Mark observed that she wasn’t that much taller than Hope, and her dark hair was attractively done up on top of her head. Her tanned complexion contrasted against the light colored blouse she wore, fully buttoned, over a dark full-length skirt. She wore a minimal amount of make-up only enough to accentuate her natural beauty.

“I take it you’re the one who punched Wimbleduff?”

“I don’t think we’ve had the chance to be properly introduced, my name’s Thelma Van deHan.”

“Marshal Mark McCain. Was he ‘forward’ with you?” asked Mark, knowing how some drunks would treat saloon girls.

“No Marshal, he didn’t do anything in appropriate to me,” replied Thelma.

“Then…”

“Mark, she was in the right,” Johnny Gibbs stated. “Had she not been the one to punch him, I sure would have. But I wasn’t close enough.”

“Uncle Johnny… Would someone like to tell me what happened, so I can make my report and decide what charges are to be pressed and against whom?”

No one was forthcoming in offering information as to why, only that each man present had wished they had been the doer of the deed.

“Okay, since no one will tell my why, I presume it has something to do with what happened last night, involving Trumble.”

Mark looked at those present and guilty faces reflected back at him.

“Marshal McCain, I briefly met your wife yesterday when she was introducing Silver Moon, she’s a lovely woman… And she don’t need nobody repeating words that should never have been spoken in the first place. I’m sorry but I just couldn’t stop myself.”

“Mark,” Johnny Gibbs interrupted. “She gave him fair warning to stop talking. Wimbleduff actually had the nerve to swing on her.”

“That’s right Marshal,” was repeated by several others.

Mark saw Sweeney nodding. “Mark, Thelma’s a very nice lady, she hasn’t caused me any trouble since I hired her as a hostess, she ain’t no saloon girl. In fact, she’s kept most of the ranch hands in line when they’re here.”

“Care to tell me how you learned to punch like that?” Mark couldn’t help himself from asking.

“I have four older brothers,” answered Thelma.

*****

“Well?” Drako asked as Mark returned to the office.

“Wimbleduff should be thankful I’m not arresting him. He had the nerve to swing on Thelma first.”

“Who said?” Wimbleduff asked.

“Everyone. Go home and sleep it off.” Mark let him off with a warning, “And next time you decide to spout something you heard, get ALL the facts. Be thankful it wasn’t me who heard you.”

“You didn’t do anything last night,” Wimbleduff replied.

Mark called Wimbleduff’s bluff, he removed his badge and set it on Johnny’s desk, his look told his friend to ‘stay out of this’.

“I’m not wearing the badge now. Care to repeat what you said in front of me?”

Giving the man time to think, Mark stated, “Didn’t think so. Get out of here.”

Mark returned to Johnny’s desk and picked up his badge.

“He repeated Trumble’s words?” Johnny asked.

“You don’t know how hard it was to restrain myself last night.”

“I do. Maybe just a little harder than it was for me to restrain myself.”

“But Hope’s not your wife!”

“No, but she’s the wife of a very good friend of mine, a very good friend to my wife, the daughter-in-law of another good friend, and the daughter to another. And regardless, no one has the right to speak about her in such a manner,” answered Johnny.

“What about Trumble?” Mark asked.

“Martha came and got him while you were at Sweeney’s,” Seth replied.

“I bet she wasn’t too pleased with him,” Mark replied sympathetically.

“Embarrassed was more like it. Mark, why don’t you head on home, your shift is about over anyway,” stated Seth.

*****

Mark returned to his home for lunch, knowing Hope planned to ride to the Kiowa camp. Tying Rainmaker to the hitching rail Mark entered his home, excitedly greeted by his children.

“Have all of you had your lunch?” asked Mark.

They nodded.

“Why don’t you go outside and play for a little while. I need to talk to your mama.”

Mark closed the door behind his children, and turned to face his wife.

“What’s wrong?” asked Hope.

“I need to talk with you, without them overhearing.”

Mark unbuttoned his shirt to show Hope his bandaged ribs.

Startled Hope asked, “What happened?” and gently placed her hands to the bandage.

“They’re just bruised and maybe a couple are cracked. We had to deal with Trumble last night.”

“That man! Why can’t you just lock him up and throw away the key?”

“I wish I could, if only to prevent you from being hurt,” answered Mark.

“Me from being hurt? Mark, what are you talking about?”

“Hope, last night Trumble was spouting off over at the saloon. He wasn’t being very kind with his words…”

“I saw him yesterday afternoon when I was introducing Silver Moon to Madelyn Donner. If I hadn’t smelled him coming, I believe he would have deliberately bumped into me.”

“Hope, there were others in the saloon who overheard what he said and how he said it.”

“And…”

“Wyman Wimbleduff started spouting off in the saloon today, repeating a lot that Trumble said. Hope, there are a lot people who call North Fork their home, that weren’t here when you first arrived; they don’t know your whole story. I just want to protect you.”

Mark pulled Hope to his lap.

“I don’t want to see you getting hurt,” Mark whispered.

“Mark, you don’t know my whole story either. But, if they can’t understand and accept my past, then they’re no friends of ours,” Hope stated.

“But they are our neighbors. We all call North Fork home.”

“They’ll have to be the ones to change. I can’t change the past, but these people have known me since they arrived and I’m the same person I was before the show arrived. And if someone spouts off in front of me, I’ll give you fair warning…” Hope pointed her index finger to Mark.

“Please don’t try to take any scalps,” teased Mark.

“I can promise I won’t take any scalps, but some just might find themselves on the other end of a knuckle sandwich.”

Hope balled her fist to prove her point.

“Well, Thelma Van deHan gave Wimbleduff a knuckle sandwich on your behalf today. He was at the saloon and a number of men from town witnessed it and most wished they had been the one to defend your honor. Including Uncle Johnny.”

“What are you going to do about Trumble?”

“There’s not much we can do except keep throwing him in jail for drunk and disorderly or disturbing the peace.”

Hope stood from Mark’s lap and walked to the front door to watch their children playing together with Lucas and Milly’s children.

“By the way, since you are off tomorrow, Silver Moon and Iron Heart have invited the whole family back to their camp. Mark, visiting with them, is wonderful and I’ll admit Silver Moon and Iron Heart have opened my eyes about why they chose to work with Mr. Cody. I didn’t realize how much I missed them. I hope you don’t mind?”

“I don’t mind. This is important to you, so it’s important to me.”

“I also invited Ma and Pa, as well as Father and Lilah to join us tomorrow, I think it’s time everyone heard from Iron Heart and Silver Moon, the whole story of my living with them.”

Mark walked over to Hope, stood behind her, wrapped his arms around her waist, and sighed, “I love you. I’ll help you get Two-Bits saddled so you can ride to their camp.”

*****

Seth and Lilah cautiously met the McCains outside of the encampment Wednesday morning, Seth wasn’t sure he was ready to hear the details of his daughter’s life, during the years he had thought she was killed along with her Aunt Susan’s family.

The McCain children ran to play with the children of the camp, but Hope kept Faith with her.

Iron Heart told of taking Grey Heart and Iron Talon hunting, when they came upon a small figure lying next to a watering hole, dress torn and dirty. He told how he stepped from his horse and walked to the child, knelt and lifted the girl into his arms. Placing his hand to her chest and feeling it rise he said, “She lives.”

“The child started to wake, her eyes held fear as she clutched the doll she carried. I tried to talk to her, but neither understood the other’s language. I knew there was a family homestead at a distance, so I carried the child and set her to my horse. Together we rode until that night. The smoke was bitter and smelled of death.

“We looked for others, who might live, but regrettably, the entire family was dead; no animal was left alive.”

Moon Shadow joined the group and offered to take Faith and set her to play with the other toddlers of the camp.

“Whoever killed the family, wanted others to think Indians had killed, but I knew different. The ponies were shod and the arrows were not of the Kiowa. Anyone who knows the tribes knows the patterns and materials each tribe uses to make their arrows.

“We were many days ride from the nearest white man and who of them would believe us. We buried the dead and left.”

“I didn’t know you buried Susan and her family, it wasn’t written in any of the reports,” stated Seth.

“Why would the white man write of our compassion?” Iron Heart asked as he paused, giving the others time to reflect.

Iron Talon spoke, “My father and brother and I rode with the child, offering her water and to share our meals as we returned to camp. The first morning we rode, we feared she was scared of us when she ran. I followed and watched her jump into a… the water. She splashed and dove under the water again. Coming up for breath, she rubbed at her hair. Next time she rise for breath, she rubbed the dirt from her dress. She walked to the bank and twisted the water out before removing her dress. The sun was just cresting a hill when it struck her hair, and made it appear on fire.”

“That’s how you gave Hope her name?” asked Seth.

“Yes, Dawn Fire,” Iron Heart stated and continued, “She hung her dress over a low branch of a tree and came to sit across from us wearing just her…”

“Petticoat,” offered Hope.

“Yes, petticoat. When the dress was dry, she put it back on and waited. We broke camp and travel back to the settlement.”

Silver Moon picked up the story, “I did not see the little one who rode behind my husband, at first all I saw were the rabbits and deer they hunted. When I stood next to Iron Heart, I saw the two tiny fists balled around his waist. I reached up to help the child down. I feared what was to come because the child was white.”

Iron Heart continued the story, “We told the Man of God, who visited our camp several weeks later, of finding the child. He talked with her and said the child would be better with us. He continued to visit with us once a month to check on the child for many years.”

“Did the priest ever say why he felt the child would be better off with you than her own kind?” Seth asked.

“No, we never knew…” Iron Heart answered.

“Father, it was because of what I saw?” answered Hope.

“What you saw?” asked Lilah.

“I saw the men who came,” whispered Hope.

“You what?” startled Seth.

“Seth, remember when you and Ethan were first reunited with Hope in Alamagordo, she told us then that it wasn’t Indians,” Mark answered. “She said brown and white men. The Priest must have known something.”

“Hope, remember, what did you talk about with the priest…” pleaded Seth.

“I told him of the men who came to Aunt Susan’s and how Aunt Susan had Henry take me to the cellar and lead me out the tunnel; he shut the door behind me, I couldn’t get back inside. I watched them, I heard them…”

Hope shivered as the memories returned; she panicked and looked around, the memories were that vivid; her breath shallowed, in expectation of those men finding her.

Mark sat next to Hope and pulled her close, “You’re safe, you’re with family.”

Hope couldn’t stop the tears or the sobs that came in spasms; she clung to Mark as if her life depended upon him. Mark had never felt Hope tremble so violently or react in such a fashion the whole time she had been a part of his life. The others of their family felt concerned and gathered around Hope and Mark, pleading with her that she was safe.

Hope kept pleading, “Please don’t let them find me. Please, don’t let them find me.”

Silver Moon returned with an older man, his face lined with age, his hair white tied down the middle of his back, his posture stooped over. Iron Heart took the furs the old man removed from around his body, to show he was even frailer than he first appeared.

Lucas pulled Seth aside, while Milly moved Lilah away.

“What’s wrong with her?” demanded Seth.

“Seth, we’ve talked a little bit about Hope’s past, but never to this degree. These are memories she’s kept hidden for a long time,” Lucas answered. “She’s talked of her life with the Kiowa, but never of what happened that day.”

“What’s he giving to her?” demanded Seth as he watched the old man pull out a pouch and mix whatever was inside into a gourd containing water.

The old man spoke, and Silver Moon translated, “Mark, he said to make her drink it all. It will make the gasping stop.”

“What’s wrong with her?!” an alarmed Seth asked.

“Seth, please,” Lilah stated as she placed her hands into her husband’s.

Mark held the gourd to Hope’s lips while Silver Moon held her hands, to prevent her from trying to push it away.

“Please Hope, drink this,” pleaded Mark.

They saw Hope struggle to bury her memories and to do as she Mark asked, but her emotions were too much for her; tears poured down her face.

“Hope, listen to me,” stated Mark. “You’re safe; you’re with people who love you. Please, drink this…”

As sobs continued to wrack her body, Hope tried to do as asked; trying not to choke as she drank all that was in the gourd.

“That’s it. Try to breathe slower, try to relax. Please…” begged Mark.

Upon Silver Moon releasing her hands, Hope immediately clutched Mark’s shirt, and nestled her head to his shoulder. Tears still fell from her closed eye, but the sobs were lessening, Mark felt her relax against him, her breath calming.

Silver Moon quietly spoke to the old man and said to the group, “She will sleep for some time. Mark, if you will carry her inside, it will be easier upon her when she wakes.”

Carrying his wife, Mark followed Silver Moon into their teepee and placed her on a pallet of furs; and watched as Silver Moon placed another fur over top of her. ”You will stay with her. She will need you when she wakes.”

*****

After taking the old man back to his teepee, Silver Moon returned, “The medicine given will not make her forget, only to sleep. Sleep is the best thing for her. I have more, should it be needed.”

“We are sorry to bring such memories back to her,” Iron Heart spoke as he wife sat next to him, tears on her own face. “She never told us…only the Man of God knew.”

“I guess it had to be done. She wanted us to know more of her life with you… I wonder…” stated Seth. “If the priest knew you had a white child and if he also knew about the massacre, could he have known who did it and left her with you to protect her from those responsible?”

“Seth, that is a possibility,” replied Lucas. “He must have felt it was safer to leave Hope to live her life with the Kiowa versus taking her back to a town and have those men find out there was a survivor. If they could murder a whole family in cold-blood, what would have kept them from trying to kill one small child?”

Silver Moon wanted Seth to understand how much she cared for the girl, “I took her into our home as if I had carried her and gave birth to her. That first night, I held her to my breast and allowed her to cry. I put her to bed and slept under the furs with her, she needed to know she was not alone. To me, Dawn Fire was the daughter I never had. A chief expects to raise sons, but the mother always longs for a daughter. She was an answer to my prayer. I grieved with her for her loss, I would hear her cry at night, but when the sun chased the moon from the sky, she never cried. In time, she no longer cried at night.”

“But if I had known she was so stubborn,” Iron Heart stated as he laughed at a long forgotten memory.

“Stubborn?” Seth asked.

“She insisted in learning as the braves, she said that if she was to live with us, she must know all there is to know. She spent the sunrises with the women learning how to be an Indian, and our words. As the sun moved to slumber, she spent time with me, learning of animals, and the ways of our people.”

“She was very eager to learn when she was in school,” Milly interrupted. “Her teacher and I would talk many times about her eagerness to learn. That’s probably why she caught up so quickly with her studies.”

“And here I always thought it was because of my son being an excellent student teacher,” Lucas stated lightening the mood.

Silver Moon continued, “She never complained about helping with the younger children or the elders. When work needed done, she was there to help. I remember when I was teaching her to weave baskets, she would try so hard to keep up with the older girls when it came to harvesting the reeds from the ponds; she would bloody her hands, but she never complained, until I told her she could no longer help, not until she was healed. In time, I believed she forget her time before…”

“Silver Moon, there was an incident several years back, where she told me about Running Wolf, Spotted Doe, and Soaring Hawk,” Milly stated.

“Yes, I know of what you speak. Dawn Fire grew into a beautiful young woman, and as the daughter of a chief, many braves favored for her.”

Silver Moon needed to talk more of her memories, “It is time men go and talk of men talk, this is women’s talk.” Silver Moon waited for the men to leave and soon it was just her, Milly, and Lilah. “These are words for you to hear, not men… Dawn Fire longed to be given to a brave, as many of her friends had been; some already had a child or carried the life within. I knew of her yearning.”

“Hope told me could not be given, as she was not old enough,” stated Milly.

“That is what I told her. Iron Heart had told me of a dream he had seen from the elders…showing that her own would come for her. Little did we know how that would end,” Silver Moon paused to collect her thoughts.

“Silver Moon, before Hope married Mark, she told me of a dream she had from the elders, when the men had taken her from your village. In her dream, a man came to take her home. At first, she said, she thought he was to take her back to you, but as she came to know Mark, she realized the dream was that he would be her home.”

“It is difficult at times to truly understand the dreams the elders’ send, until the dream become real.” Silver Moon continued, “But still, we could not tell her of the dream. Dawn Fire was there when Spotted Doe birthed Soaring Hawk. She wiped the sweat from her friend’s body as she struggled to birth, from when the sun was high in the sky, until it hid from the moon. When the child arrived, Dawn Fire held the child as Spotted Mouse cut the cord of life. Dawn Fire held the bloodied baby to her and wrapped him to keep him warm while the others tended to Spotted Doe. She watched when Spotted Doe took the child and placed it to her breast and watched as the milk of life spilled from around the child’s mouth. I was there when Dawn Fire left the teepee, blood from the birth on her dress and arms.

“I followed her to the stream, I knew she needed a mother. As she knelt in the cold waters, I asked if her tears were tears of joy for Running Wolf and Spotted Doe. She did not answer, she did not move, leaving it to me to remove the soiled clothing from her body as she cried. She looked to me and I saw the longing in her eyes and I yearned for her to know what it was to receive and carry the seed of life within.”

Silver Moon continued, “As I bathed the blood and sweat from her; she asked if she was so unworthy that the Great One made her body so small that no brave wanted to take her to give their seed to her to bring forth a child from her womb. She told of her yearnings while she helped her friend.”

Milly tried to envision what Hope endured; Lilah understood Hope’s longing to have a child.

“Yet, the elders’ dream did not tell us when her own would come for her, so I told her she was not of age. I told her many of the braves in the tribe favored taking her, but that Iron Heart had not chosen which brave would bear the honor of taking his daughter, at least not until she was of age. I told her by waiting until she was older, this gave the braves time to increase their herds in their offerings to Iron Heart. The more horses presented, the stronger the brave and stronger the sons he would have her bear.”

“But what would have happened had she turned eighteen?” Milly asked.

“We prayed the white man would come for her, but had he not, she would have been given to the brave who offered the best and the most to us,” Silver Moon answered.

“She would have been sold, for horses?” asked Lilah, she couldn’t listen anymore; she stood and excused herself.

“It is difficult for others to understand our way of life, but it is the father’s right to choose who is best for his daughter. By presenting the best ponies, it shows the brave is strong, for only the strongest brave would be able to present such an offering. In time, the woman would come to love her husband, as I came to love Iron Heart and bore him three fine, strong sons. There were many braves who sought her favor, but we also did this to protect her.”

“Protect her?” asked Milly.

“When Dawn Fire first came, there was one who could not accept the fact that Iron Heart had brought a white child into the tribe, he was most vocal, yet Iron Heart proved time and time again, that he was in the right. After the dream, we prayed the Great One would fulfill the elders’ dream, I fear had the past not happened as it did, Dawn Fire would be dead today.” Milly sharply inhaled when she heard Silver Moon’s words. “Thundering Buffalo was most demanding against her living, but his grandson, White Buffalo, was the most demanding when presenting ponies to Iron Heart.”

“But if he was a strong brave?” Milly tried to understand.

“Many times in counsel Thundering Buffalo would argue how the Kiowa had grown weak, so weak that Iron Heart brought a white bastard child into the tribe. We were pleased when White Buffalo made his offering; that maybe the grandson was ready to live as Iron Heart had chosen to lead the tribe. She was fourteen when he first tried, but it is for the father to choose when and we both knew she was too young. When Dawn Fire turned sixteen, Black Hawk also sought her; he and Grey Heart were as brothers. He knew he could never present as many ponies as White Buffalo, but he told us of what he heard White Buffalo boast he would do, were Dawn Fire given to him, he said he would take the white bastard to his bed and seed a life inside her, and shortly before the birth, he would kill both.

“Milly, you must believe me. White Buffalo would have drug her from their bed and in front of all, cut the baby from her womb allowing her to bleed to death. White Buffalo grew up hearing tales from his grandfather of the Kiowa’s long ago wars against the white man, when Thundering Buffalo killed white women in such a manner. White Buffalo would do such to his wife to appease his grandfather’s death and to prove he would keep our tribe, Indian. You understand more of why we told her the lie that she was not old enough. We prayed her own would come, and soon.”

The images Milly envisioned were revolting and it took everything she had to keep from losing the contents of her stomach, even though breakfast had been hours before.

“Milly, I mourn the loss of my daughter, but I know she lives a better life with you; as she first lived a better life with us. Be grateful she has a life to live.”

The two women cried and hugged each other, counting their blessings that Hope still lived.

“What of White Buffalo?” Milly dared ask.

“After Iron Heart first returned without Dawn Fire, White Buffalo killed a soldier. Iron Heart stated that he would stand trial in the white man’s law, but if found guilty, he would face Kiowa punishment. In a way, the white man’s law would have much kinder to him, but, he has been reunited with his grandfather.”

*****

Hope woke, finding herself wrapped in furs with her husband’s arms around her; she gave a start when she remembered what had happened.

“I’m here, Hope,” Mark stated as he woke and propped himself up on his elbow.

“How long?” Hope tried to ask, as she started to fear her past.

“The sun has already set. Are you okay, should I send for Silver Moon?”

“I just want you to hold me… I want to forget those men… I need to know that I belong here with you.”

“I know. Shhhh. Regardless of how it happened, you belong by my side.” Mark pressed a kiss to his wife’s head and pulled her closed to him. “Iron Heart and Silver Moon said we were to sleep here tonight. Ma and Pa left to go home earlier this evening.”

“What of Father and Lilah?”

“Ma and Pa said they’d see them home, they knew that the tribe would look out for you, plus, I’m right here with you.”

“What of the children?”

“They’re having fun with the others and looking forward to another sleep over.”

Mark climbed from the fur pallet and stood up.

“Where are you going?” Hope asked, not wanting to be alone.

“I’m going to get us something to eat. I know you’re hungry. I’ll be right back.”

As Mark promised, he returned. After they ate, they set aside the dishes and sat and listened to the sounds outside the teepee as the tribe prepared for night, Hope asked, “Are you sure we should stay here?”

“Are you sure you’re up to offending Iron Heart or Silver Moon if we leave? They gave up their sleeping quarters for us tonight.”

“I guess not…” Hope stated as she cast her eyes down and closed them.

The fire in the middle of the teepee cast a gentle glow that flickered along the hides stretched across the poles that met at the top of the teepee; with a hole large enough to allow the smoke to slip out, but constructed in such a way to not allow the gentle rain that had begun to fall to enter.

Mark leaned forward, taking Hope’s chin in his hand, giving it a lift and kissed her. Mark couldn’t stop himself as he pressed Hope to lie back down on the furs. Slowly he worked at unbuttoning his shirt and pulled the shirttail from his pants, not willing to separate their lips, he allowed Hope to slip his shirt from his shoulders. Her hands came to rest on the bandages around his ribs; Mark broke off their kiss allowing Hope to unwrap his ribs before he finished stripping. He rolled to his back, pulling Hope on top of him and they kissed again. He unbuttoned her blouse and slipped it from her shoulders as Hope slipped from her skirt. Having removed her camisole from over her head, Mark lovingly ran his hands down her soft skin, causing a brief shiver to course through her body, before she lay back down to him, and Mark pulled a fur across her back. As the sounds of the tribe quieted to the sounds of the night and with the rain gently striking the teepee, nature created its own music, to which Mark ensured Hope forgot her past in while he made love to her.

So intense was their passion, they were oblivious that the furs had slipped from them as two intertwined into one, both seeking the pleasure the other offered, oblivious to the fact that Silver Moon entered the teepee to see if they needed anything for the night. Silver Moon smiled as she slipped back out, closed the flap, and walked to where her husband waited.

*****

Upon putting their youngest children to bed, and retiring themselves, Lucas asked about the rest of Milly’s afternoon with Silver Moon.

“We talked more of Hope’s growing up and becoming a young woman,” Milly answered quietly.

“Is that all? You seem… a little upset about something…”

“Oh Lucas,” Milly cried. She so much wanted to protect her husband from knowing, but the secret was tearing her up inside. With Lucas’ arms wrapped around her, Milly lay back against Lucas’ chest and told him everything Silver Moon had said after Lilah had left.

Lucas did his best to calm himself after listening to Milly. After working through their anger and tears, both vowed, neither Mark nor Hope would ever know what could have been Hope’s life, had she not entered the McCains’ lives.

*****

When Hope woke the following morning, she sat up and wrapped the furs around her while she quietly watched Mark dress. After pulling on his boots, she asked, “Do you have to go to work?”

“Yes, you know I do. If you want, you can come to town later…”

“No, I think I want to stay here. Silver Moon stated the other day they would be weaving baskets today. I remember how much fun I had and how all the women would talk while working. I guess you could compare it to a quilting bee.”

Mark knelt in front of his wife, “Hope, just remember, your life is here, with me.”

“After last night, how can I forget?” she blushed.

“Just try to forget those men. They’re long gone and can’t do you any harm.”

“I know, it’s just, hearing Iron Heart and Silver Moon last night, it all became so much more real.”

“Promise me, you’ll rebury those memories.”

“I’ll try.”

“I’ll try to be home early tomorrow. I love you,” said Mark.

“I know you do.”

*****

“I don’t know how I can ever repay them for saving her life…” Seth stated as he and Lucas walked through the Indian camp Thursday afternoon. “Their life is nothing like I imagined — it’s so simple. In case I haven’t thanked you enough for raising Mark as you did…had he not been there that day…Stedman and the others could very well have destroyed this tribe; this way of life.”

“How are you handling what you heard yesterday?” asked Lucas, mindful of the secret.

“It was difficult to hear the details, but if it meant my daughter lived, I’m thankful that Iron Heart found her and that priest chose to keep quiet to the authorities. Had Stedman not plotted to kill Senator Borden, using Hope to lure Iron Heart after them, I think I would be happy to know that this would have been her life. Marrying and bringing children into their world. As long as she would be happy, that’s what really matters; she’d have a life.”

 

This story continues in The Rifleman – The Next Generation Pt 24

 

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